Why I Look At My Phone (Even When We’re Talking)

A few months ago Miri posted about why she checks her phone when she’s hanging out with other people. I think she makes some great points, and I agree with basically all of them (tl;dr: even though I’m hanging out with you I don’t owe you my complete undivided attention every second that we’re together). I also can be incredibly connected with my phone, and I see no problems with playing a mindless game while I’m having a conversation with you. Another post on Shakesville from a few years ago that I only just saw sparked a moment of clarity for me that brought together my own habits with Miri’s insights. Maud described one of the symptoms of her depression as follows:

“I also have difficulty disengaging from tasks. Physical tasks are self-limiting, because my normal state is one of fatigue, and it escalates rapidly with any exertion. I can get sort of “stuck”, though, doing fairly simple things on the computer, because the fatigue factor is low and it can require more energy to disengage, or mentally change gears to engage another task, than it does to just keep doing what I’m doing.”

When I am with someone else, my attention is rarely 100% on them because my attention is rarely 100% on anything. This is because my brain is a crazy head that refuses to stop thinking and moving and going, and I have social anxiety. It’s hard for me to focus completely on anything with the exception of extremely intellectual and abstract ideas or novels. So when I’m with you, I’m overanalyzing everything, and oftentimes feeling self-conscious and self-hating over the fact that my social interactions don’t go the way that I want them to go.

Because of this, I often feel like I can focus better if I’m doing something with my hands, or engaged in some activity that doesn’t require much brain power but can keep me occupied while conversing. This is true in classes and lectures, while working and writing, while talking to others…pretty much any time. I know others who feel similarly and who can focus better while doodling or tapping or something else.

These things also help reduce some of my anxiety. They keep me from focusing too much on what should be happening, or on the potential judgment of others. They calm me by getting me out of my head and into the world around me. When there is a lull in the conversation, I find it far more soothing to pull out my phone so that I can calm my brain and jump back in than to spend time worrying about what to say next.

Sometimes, I get stuck when I start doing this. I find myself opening the same pages on my phone over and over, although there’s nothing new there and I don’t much care about them. I can still follow the conversation, but another part of my brain seems to be on repeat, stuck playing an empty minded game. The effort it takes to pull myself away and become fully focused on a mundane conversation is monumental, and unless it is incredibly important to my conversation partner, it is not worth fighting my own mind. I deeply appreciate those people who understand why I start doing something distracting and that it can be hard for me to stop, those who recognize that I can still interact with them, and that it’s not a comment on how interesting they are or how much I care for them or my level of respect for them, but rather a comment on how I can cope at this moment.

If I am with someone and I choose to look at my phone, it is 99% likely that I’m doing so for my own mental health, as a coping mechanism or because I feel anxious if I miss any texts (I am convinced that something catastrophic will happen when I don’t have my phone or don’t answer it). Unfortunately, most people judge social situations by their own emotions and signals: they can only imagine using their phone around another person if they didn’t care about that person or wanted to show disrespect, therefore that is what others must be doing when they use their phones.

An important thing to remember when someone behaves in a way that you interpret as disrespectful is that many people have different needs than you do, and sometimes them taking care of their needs might look weird to you. Instead of immediately taking offense, it might be a good idea to ask them what they’re doing and why (this is not to be confused with times when people do things like debate your fundamental rights, but rather more mundane instances of social protocol).

Society has been set up with its social protocols to favor those who socialize “normally”: those who listen best when they are making eye contact, those who aren’t overly anxious, those who can make small talk, those who can give undivided attention (or at least feign it). Those who cannot do these things are often people who are already oppressed in some manner: those with mental illness, the neurodivergent, disabled individuals, or people who have grown up in the non-dominant culture due to race or class or gender. Many non-typical behaviors don’t actually hurt anyone (seriously if you are actually injured by me checking my phone then we have a problem), but are simply different. Many of them are highly beneficial behaviors for the person enacting them.

Next time you find yourself offended by a perceived slight, think for a moment about what might be behind a behavior. Or better yet, just ask. More often than not, other people’s behaviors aren’t about you. And next time we hang out and I start obsessively checking my phone, just ask what’s going on or if I need some help with anything. I promise, it’s not too hard and it makes a big difference for those of us who struggle with socializing like the average bear.

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